Once tagged as a father, man faces legal fallout
We've heard loads of stories about deadbeat dads, but not too many about dads caught in the quagmire of paternity fraud.
Portland resident Larry Nicholson knows firsthand how a man's attempt to help can go painfully, expensively wrong.
He and a friend had known each other for years, he begins his story. 'So when she called in 1995, said that she was pregnant and the baby's father had walked out, and asked if I could help, I immediately said yes.'
The child was born premature and spent 90 days in the hospital. Nicholson, who, like his friend, was then living in California, took time off from his job as an electrical engineer to visit the baby. Meanwhile, the mother became increasingly dependent on Nicholson, who helped out by baby-sitting and giving her money from time to time.
A few years later, Nicholson says, he got a letter from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office informing him that the woman had identified him as her child's biological father and that he owed back child support.
'I knew that I wasn't the father,' Nicholson says. 'Even the judge would see that when he saw the boy is white and I'm of American Indian and African-American descent. I wasn't too worried, just wild with surprise.
'I wrote a letter back to the state and simply said, 'You have the wrong guy!' '
Under California law, a putative father generally must be served in person with notice of the court hearing at which paternity will be established. But some counties allow service to take the form of a notice in the local newspaper if the man can't be located. (Oregon also allows for service by newspaper if the court acknowledges that service can't be accomplished any other way.)
Not surprisingly, this leads to situations in which the hearing takes place without the putative father's being aware of it.
Nicholson says he doesn't recall getting a notice to appear in court. In any event, the letter he wrote denying paternity wasn't enough.
The next thing he knew, Nicholson says, he was slapped with a bill for more than $75,000 in current and past-due child support.
In 1999, after his friend and her child moved to Wisconsin and she began collecting welfare, that state's child support collection office called Nicholson. Told that he was responsible for support as the father, Nicholson again denied paternity.
According to Nicholson, Wisconsin officials asked him to provide DNA for testing, he complied, and the state acknowledged that he was not the child's father and dropped its child support case.
In May 2001, Nicholson says, he took the DNA evidence back to California, which had entered the original support order against him.
'I was told by the judge that DNA is not relevant to his court,' he says. 'This is a nightmare.'
The real problem, according to a California deputy district attorney who specializes in child support cases, is that Nicholson didn't contest parenthood within the six-month period that California allows to contest a default judgment assigning paternity.
After that six-month period, says attorney Carol Ann White of Sacramento, Calif., men in Nicholson's position must show some convincing reason that they didn't appear and defend against the paternity actions in the first place, such as fraud on the part of their lawyers.
California courts take this position for two reasons, White says. One is a general rule that says courts should uphold the judgments of earlier courts when possible. The other is the interests of the child involved.
According to White, throwing out a paternity judgment, and the child support order that it underlies, may be detrimental to the child if it's too late to try to identify the real father.
Nicholson says he hopes a bill introduced in the California State Assembly to address paternity fraud will pass and give him some relief.
In the meantime, he says, more than 40 percent of his take-home pay continues to go to his friend's child via the state of California. Now married and living in Southeast Portland, Nicholson says he's expected to continue supporting the child for the next 13 years, while he also tries to support his 5-year-old stepdaughter and the child he and his wife are expecting.
Asked if he is hopeful about eventually getting relief from the California court's order, Nicholson sighs and says, 'I can't believe I will have to continue to support a child that I baby-sat a few times and (because I) offered a helping hand to an old friend in need.'